William Morris: Rebooted
From LSHG Newsletter #47 (Autumn 2012)
William Morris [1834-1896] is one of the best known figures in the modern history of the British left. He came quite late in life to socialist politics but when he did so, typically, he threw himself into it, first as part of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and then as a key figure in the Socialist League. His socialist writings are voluminous but he is perhaps best known for News from Nowhere, a novel which tries to imagine what a future socialist society would look like. Morris is also very well known as a designer, part of the arts and craft movement, and indeed for some, a producer of patterned wallpapers.
There remains only one national museum dedicated to Morris’s life and work, the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, east London, which has just reopened after a major refurbishment. It is set in a house that Morris actually lived in as a young person in the 1840s and 50s. Morris’s family being well to do, the house is substantial and set in sizeable grounds which are now Lloyd Park. The Museum has been there for a good while and some readers may have made a visit or two over the years.
In its previous incarnation it was a rather fusty and cramped exhibition area with a quite small section given over to Morris’s politics. Much has changed both in terms of the Museum’s layout and in the way in which it deals with Morris’s life. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that it tries to understand Morris in the round, showing aspects of his life fitted into his central concerns. His ideas and politics, once peripheral, now take centre stage.
The first room on your left as you enter looks at Morris’s early life and has on the walls quotations from authorities on him including EP Thompson’s 1955 biography. Other rooms on the ground floor, now light and airy, look at the craft and design aspect of Morris’s life and work.
We do indeed see examples of the wallpapers sold by Morris and Co. in their Oxford Street shop and some of the furniture he designed. Alongside this is an idea of the techniques that Morris used in his factory and his insistence that it was a decent place to work, not a sweatshop.
However — and this is where the new Gallery’s integrated approach to Morris’s life and politics hits home — care is taken to show how Morris’s love of good design and craft production led him to left-wing political conclusions.
So Morris was concerned that the items of beauty that his factory produced were out of reach to working people by virtue of cost. He determined to do something about that. Likewise, he often opined that the houses of the rich that he won commissions to furnish were often full of vulgar things that would be better off thrown away. Moving to the first floor there is a room dedicated to Morris’s love of books and one that looks at the arts and craft movement. Of particular interest is the room now dedicated to Morris’s political views. In the old museum this was a quite limited space. Now photographs and documents from Morris’s socialist years are well presented and there is a short film with various authorities on Morris discussing what his politics were and the impact that he made.
On top of that, the Museum now has a great new café area and a gallery for temporary exhibitions. Get along when you can. Its free and well worth the journey.
William Morris Gallery
Lloyd Park, Forest Road
Walthamstow, London, E17 4PP
020 8496 4390
Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm
This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the Morning Star